Debanjan Chakrabarti, who was in conversation with author-poet Jeet Thayil last month at Taj Bengal for An Author’s Afternoon, partnered by t2, recounts his and Calcutta’s “old” association with the poet-author who has just been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.
“delighted & overwhelmed. my thanks to everyone here, twitter, where the news is always new.” — @jeetthayil on Twitter
|Debanjan Chakrabarti (left) in conversation with Jeet Thayil at Taj Bengal for An Authorís Afternoon, presented by Shree Cement, along with
Prabha Khaitan Foundation and partnered by t2
The first thought that popped up and burst inside my sleep-addled head on Tuesday morning (September 11) was “The Man Booker shortlist will be announced today and I hope Jeet makes it.”
And something to this effect was also my first Facebook post for the day. I was thus ecstatic when the BBC World Service newsfeed on my Twitter account announced that Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis, had made it to the shortlist of six for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. The nail-biting countdown to October 16, when the winner will be announced, has now begun.
When t2 invited me to be in conversation with Jeet last month in Calcutta, I jumped at the opportunity. I have known Jeet for a while. I was introduced to him in Bombay (the city was then called thus, as in Jeet’s novel) by a common friend in 1997. I was then working for The Telegraph and on my return from Bombay I persuaded my editor to let me review Jeet’s first solo book, Apocalypso, a slim collection of short poems where each word was chiselled to prick your ears, every image polished to dazzle the eyes and the sure rhythm of each line had the slow intoxicating effect of good wine.
While working on literature programmes for the British Council, I was delighted to be back in touch with Jeet, working with him at the London Book Fair in 2009. In January 2010, Jeet was in conversation with Ian Rankin in Mumbai, when British Council presented the Scottish crime fiction star before audiences in India for the first time.
At the end of the t2 programme at Taj Bengal, the two of us stepped out for a laddish evening out in Calcutta. We had a lot of catching up to do and we headed off to Park Street first, and dropped in at the launch of Sampurna Chattarji’s novel, The Land of the Well, at Oxford Bookstore.
But before that, we paid fleeting homage to the other great Park Street institution, Oly Pub. All those years back in his apartment in Bombay, Jeet had offered us shots of Absolut vodka stored deep inside the freezer. The drink had the consistency of honey, as it crackled and fizzed its way down the throat. Jeet’s now given up spirits and alas, Oly Pub is not known for its wines. We tried the house red but it was vinegar. So off to Oxford Bookstore we went.
Jeet was impressed by the eclectic turnout at Sampurna’s event, the responsiveness of the audience and how familiar the bookstore director, Maina Bhagat, was with everyone present. “We don’t see this happening in Delhi or Bombay, unless a publisher pulls out all the stops for an author,” he said wistfully.
Jeet wanted to get a feel of old Calcutta. So we headed off to one place I knew would not disappoint him — the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club. It didn’t.
The Sula Merlot paired perfectly with the fish fingers and fish Irani kebabs. Jeet was ecstatic about the fish dishes. “This place is heaven for a Malayali,” he observed.
[I recounted the words of the Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who arrived very grumpy at the CC&FC bar one evening in 2009 after a rather rough ride at the Jaipur Literature Festival and a scrapped Calcutta Book Fair, took one bite of the fish finger (after quite a few swigs of whisky, of course) and said, “This is what Captain Birdseye must have had in mind when he invented fish fingers,” and grinned broadly for the first time in days.]
Our conversation veered to the legacy of Satyajit Ray, particularly his work as a commercial artist and designer. We spoke about his legacy in designing fonts, particularly the Ray Roman, and Jeet mentioned coming across a copy of Nehru’s Discovery of India with the original, stark but startling cover design by Ray. “Imagine what would have happened if Ray had married Steve Jobs and they had a baby,” Jeet wondered aloud.
CC&FC’s other speciality, the beef steak, arrived on our table and it was cue for Jeet to rave about how perfectly cooked his medium rare steak was and how difficult it was for most fancy restaurants to achieve this perfection.
We parted ways, light-headed and well-fed.
Next morning, Jeet was in touch again through SMS, for recommendations for a place to lunch. Without hesitation, I directed his car to take him to Bhojohori Manna in Ekdalia. The poet in Jeet was naturally curious about the name. I explained the association with the Manna De film song. “What should I order?”, he wrote back. “Go for the Daab Chingri,” I suggested. The intrepid foodie in Jeet ordered that and some more. “Mustard bekti steamed in a leaf, prawn in coconut shell and even the aloo gobi was creamy and delish. Good reason to live in Cal,” he signed off.
Cal waits to welcome Jeet Thayil back. Hopefully, with the Man Booker prize tucked under his belt.
And then we shall party some more.
Debanjan works for the British Council in India